High Seas: Weed-Smuggling Submarine Captured by Coast Guard

This June 19, 2019 photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows the Coast Guard Cutter Munro crew members inspecting a self-propelled semi-submersible in international waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean. (Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Masaschi/U.S. Coast Guard via AP)

CORONADO, Calif. — The U.S. Coast Guard released video and photos Thursday of service members recently boarding submarines used to smuggle cocaine and cannabis across international borders. The Coast Guard reported 14 operations that resulted in the seizure of more than 39,000 kilograms of drugs in the past two months in international waters off the coasts of Mexico and Central and South America.

The agency released this dramatic video of one encounter with submersible smugglers:

The video shows a Coast Guard vessel pulling alongside the submarine as a member of the US Coast Guard Cutter Munro yells orders in Spanish for it to stop.

The submarine continues to move as Coast Guard members then get close enough to leap on board, and one Coastie pounds on the hatch before it opens and people on board appear with their hands raised in surrender.

The Coast Guard also released a photograph of a second submarine, this one painted blue and looking a little less seaworthy, that the agency captured recently in nearby waters.

The Coast Guard says cocaine and cannabis with an estimated street value of $569 million was seized during the operations in the past two months.

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Showing Off the New Drug Cutter

The June seizure was part of the Coast Guard Cutter Munro’s first drug patrol since it was commissioned two years ago. The new vessel is one of six state-of-the-art cutters added to the Coast Guard fleet in recent years and another two have been commissioned in Hawaii.

Vice President Mike Pence was on hand Thursday as 39,000 pounds (17,690 kilograms) of cocaine and 933 pounds (423 kilograms) of cannabis were taken off the cutter Munro at Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado.

Fifty-five smuggling suspects were taken into custody.

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Where’s the Cannabis Headed?

The cannabis recovered by the Coast Guard raises interesting questions about the state of drug smuggling in the post-prohibition era. Cocaine, of course, remains illegal everywhere so the illicit market thrives. But if smugglers are still moving tons of cannabis from Mexico to the United States over waterborne routes, what market is it feeding?

We’ve seen numerous reports and data over the past few years indicating that overland cannabis smuggling has dropped due to legalization in Canada and certain US states. California grows seven times more cannabis than the state can consume. Oregon is so oversupplied with cannabis right now that stores are practically giving it away. Clearly there’s still a financial incentive to pack bales of low-quality product in a potentially deadly submersible and run it north to the US, where presumably it gets transferred to vehicles and trucked east to illegal states.

Gangsters used to do this sort of ocean-based smuggling with whiskey during the days of alcohol prohibition. Smugglers would bring Canadian alcohol down the Eastern seaboard on rumrunner boats. Nobody does that anymore because alcohol is legal and regulated. There’s no market for illicit spirits of unknown origin. But as long as cannabis remains criminalized in certain states, there will be a financial incentive to smuggle it—in whatever homemade vessel or vehicle today’s modern-day moonshiners can patch together.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.